Top 20 UFC fighters of all-time
Over the UFC’s 20-year existence, hundreds of fighters have made the walk from the locker room to the Octagon. Some of them only made it once before getting their walking papers; others were fixtures for most of the promotion’s existence. Either way, they’re in the record books. But there is a circle reserved for the best to ever strap on the UFC gloves, and picking the 20 best is no easy task.
After all, some fighters were able to produce significant accomplishments in just a few fights while others hung around much longer but still made an impact without winning a title.
For the purposes of this list, we’re going to focus on UFC time only. That means someone like MMA great Kazushi Sakuraba, who only competed in the UFC in one 1997 tournament, is out. That still leaves many options, but with respect to the many who bravely set foot in the cage but don’t appear here, this is our list of the very best.
#20: Lyoto Machida
Perhaps the most unique fighter during the modern era is Lyoto Machida, a karate black belt who fused his style with more widely used techniques, dashed in equal parts patience, accuracy and fight IQ, and came out with a head-scratching combination that win or loss, has flummoxed nearly everyone bold enough to meet him.
Machida began his UFC career with eight consecutive wins, including a highlight reel knockout of Rashad Evans that gave him the UFC light-heavyweight championship. Machida also has names like Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture and Dan Henderson on his list of victories.
The Couture win, which came on a crane kick at UFC 129 before 55,724 fans, is one of the greatest knockouts in UFC history.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Machida is that he accomplished most of this while cutting very little weight. In an era of extreme weight cutting, Machida was fighting downright light. In his second UFC bout, for example, Machida weighed just 199 pounds. Other times in his career, he came in at 201 and 202 pounds, respectively. Despite the differential, Machida’s 12 knockdowns are in the top five in UFC history.
#19: Brock Lesnar
The rise and fall of Brock Lesnar may one day be worthy of a movie, if only they could find an actor that could match that freakish body type and natural intensity of the former professional wrestler, who made the switch to mixed martial arts in 2007.
From the beginning, Lesnar was a gate draw, but no one had any clue whether or not he’d actually be any good at fighting. Turned out, he was. Despite losing his first UFC match with Frank Mir, Lesnar proved a quick study, and smashed Heath Herring next time out. That led to a championship match with legend Randy Couture.
Couture was favored to win the fight, but Lesnar caught him with a punch behind the ear and then finished the legend on the ground to capture the belt. He defended the belt twice, once defeating his rival Mir by a vicious TKO, then again with a stunning comeback against Shane Carwin after enduring a massive beating in the first round.
While diverticulitis would compromise his health and lead to a premature retirement, Lesnar’s impact was immense from both competition and business standpoints, as he commanded attention from the sports world like no other fighter that came before or since.
#18: Frank Mir
For better or for worse, heavyweight fighting is always going to have a certain sheen to it that other divisions don’t have. That means extra attention on its participants, and among the big men, no one has lasted as long and been as durable and successful as Frank Mir.
Mir has the most victories of any heavyweight in UFC history (14), and captured the championship in 2004 with an armbar submission of Tim Sylvia that snapped Sylvia’s arm.
Sudden and violent submissions were always his trademark, as Brock Lesnar can attest to, but his masterpiece came against fellow Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, “Big Nog” had never been submitted when the two met in a rematch at UFC 140. Rolling into a kimura, Mir torqued Nogueira’s arm, and when he didn’t tap fast enough, broke it. The technical submission made him the first man to submit Nogueira along with the first to knock him out.
During his tenure, he’s also established records for most finishes in UFC heavyweight history (11) and most submission wins for a heavyweight (8).
#17: Jose Aldo
Truth be told, if the UFC had absorbed its sister promotion WEC sooner, Aldo would deserve a much higher ranking, but to date, only five of his 24 pro fights in a brilliant career have taken place in the UFC Octagon. Still, that’s enough of a sample to place him on the list as one of the best the cage has ever seen.
During that five-fight run, Aldo has defeated Chan Sung Jung, Frankie Edgar, Chad Mendes, Kenny Florian and Mark Hominick. Two of those men -- Edgar and Florian -- spent a large portion of their respective careers as lightweights, proving that Aldo is capable of defeating men naturally bigger than he.
In a signature moment, he knocked out Chad Mendes with a knee with one second remaining in the first round of their matchup, then ran into the crowd, setting off a wild celebration with the fans in the stands.
Throughout the entirety of his run at the top, Aldo has been considered among the top pound-for-pound fighters in mixed martial arts.
#16: Vitor Belfort
Still active and successful at the age of 36, Belfort is one of the UFC’s longest-standing success stories, having three separate stints in the promotion dating back to his debut as a 19-year-old “Phenom” in 1997.
Known for his thunderous power, Belfort actually began his career as a heavwyeight, scoring knockouts in each of his first three fights, including one over Tank Abbott at UFC 13.
Belfort would go on to win the light-heavyweight championship in 2004, and to take part in memorable bouts with Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz, among others. In 2009, he returned, and he’s currently in the midst of a career rebirth, having scored the first back-to-back-to-back head kick knockouts in UFC history, vanquishing Luke Rockhold, Michael Bisping and Dan Henderson in the process.
#15: Frankie Edgar
When Frankie Edgar debuted in the UFC in Feb. 2007, little was expected of him. Slight and undersized as he appeared, he seemed likely to have little chance against the UFC’s top lightweights.
How wrong we were. As it turned out, Edgar would become one of the great underdog stories in UFC history, a high-energy dynamo with speed and a limitless ability to take punishment and deliver his offense.
The legend of Frankie Edgar was made in 2010, when he defeated BJ Penn twice in a single calendar year, and the first time as an overwhelming statistical underdog. But even before that, he’d shown himself capable of beating the division’s best when he defeated former champion Sean Sherk.
Though he went on to memorable matchups with Benson Henderson and Jose Aldo, Edgar’s legacy will always be his trilogy with Gray Maynard, which produced two of the most riveting and dramatic matches of all time. In the first, which took place in Jan. 2011, Edgar was nearly knocked out in the first, but rallied back to force a draw. That led to an immediate rematch, which began almost identically. Edgar was knocked down again in the first and nearly finished. This time, he stormed back again, but one-upped himself, knocking out Maynard in the fourth to end the wild battle.
#14: Royce Gracie
For as long as the UFC is around, Royce Gracie will always be its Babe Ruth, its first seminal figure, and the one who helped bring into the consciousness of the sporting public.
When Gracie entered UFC 1, he was chosen by his family because of his slightness of stature. Gracie was just 6 foot and slightly over 170 pounds, and it was believed his victory over bigger, stronger men would be the perfect showcase for the family’s Gracie Jiu Jitsu.
Mission accomplished. For the first year of the UFC’s existence, Gracie was untouchable, beating boxers, kung fu masters, taekwondo practitioners, even wrestlers, who were all completely lost on how to fight once the action hit the ground. In that way, Gracie’s arrival would revolutionize the thinking on fighting. It was no longer enough just to know your way around punches and kicks.
Gracie won his first 11 fights in the UFC Octagon, and his rivalry with Ken Shamrock was the first very important one in UFC history.
#13: Rashad Evans
After entering the UFC as a wrestling-heavy grappler during season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter, Rashad Evans’ future as one of the UFC’s best was hardly a given. Yet Evans continued working and improving, and within a few, he’d forged a new identity as a complete fighter with knockout power to go with his foundational skill.
Evans was a quick study, and got off to a strong start, but it was really his UFC 88 win against Chuck Liddell that was his breakthrough performance, showcasing just how far he’d come.
During his career, Evans has earned wins over former UFC champions Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Tito Ortiz, to go with another notable victories over Dan Henderson, Thiago Silva and Michael Bisping.
Evans also had the distinction of headlining two pay-per-views that have done over 1 million buys each.
#12: Cain Velasquez
In less than six years, Cain Velasquez has helped redefined the image of what a heavyweight could be. Long thought of as lumbering big men intent on landing haymakers, Velasquez’s game is heavily dependent on conditioning and the ability to go at a flyweight’s pace.
With his base in wrestling but a solid kickboxing game, Velasquez is a multi-tooled champion capable of attacking his opponent exactly at his weak spot. To that end, he became the first fighter in UFC history to post triple-digit significant strikes and double-digit takedowns in a single fight when he did it against Junior dos Santos at UFC 155.
He quickly rose through the heavyweight ranks, beating veterans like Cheick Kongo within a year of his UFC arrival.
In a short time, he’s garnered wins over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Brock Lesnar, Antonio Silva, and of course, dos Santos, his rival with whom he took part in three memorable bouts. A two-time champion, Velasquez is arguably the most dominant heavyweight of all time, with a record nine finishes in the division.
#11: Rich Franklin
It’s easy to wonder how differently history would have been written without the greatness of Anderson Silva. That question as it relates to Rich Franklin is probably the most interesting to speculate on, but the fact is, with or without Silva, Franklin had an excellent career.
Franklin captured the UFC middleweight title in June 2005 with a TKO over Evan Tanner, and defended the belt twice, including the well-remembered crushing knockout of Nate Quarry at UFC 56. While his ongoing rivalry with Silva would become one of the most remembered facets of his career, Franklin boasts career wins over Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva, Yushin Okami and David Loiseau. The knockout victory over Liddell would mark the last time “the Iceman” ever stepped foot in the cage.
Franklin’s 14 career wins rank in the top 10 all-time.
#10: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson
One of the most polarizing fighters ever to strap on UFC gloves, Jackson made some howl in delight of his quirky personality and turned others off with unfiltered speech. But Jackson always had a way of making his fights matter.
After a career spent mostly aboard, Jackson’s contract was acquired in late 2006, and he was fast-tracked to a title shot after knocking out Marvin Eastman. He followed with a knockout of Chuck Liddell, winning the light-heavyweight championship in a match that had the mainstream sports and entertainment world buzzing. That made Jackson a crossover star, but before he went Hollywood, he managed to unify the UFC and Pride belts when he defeated Dan Henderson by decision at UFC 75.
Jackson would go on to have memorable feuds with Rashad Evans and Jon Jones, but perhaps most significant for him was his UFC 92 knockout of Wanderlei Silva. The two had fought twice in the Pride days, with Jackson being KO’d twice. The two had never gotten along, and the bad blood was thick as they met for the third time, with Jackson finishing the Brazilian berserker with a perfectly placed left hook.
Jackson also holds a career win over Lyoto Machida, making it four former UFC or Pride champs he defeated during his Octagon days.
#9: Tito Ortiz
Despite a rocky tenure that was marked by contractual battles with his bosses, Tito Ortiz was an unquestioned trailblazer in the UFC, an early dominant champion who helped build the company through his colorful character and ability to promote.
Ortiz’s feud with The Lion’s Den during the early part of his career was one of the first memorable rivalries in UFC history, and set the stage for a career filled with confrontation. Early on, it became clear that was something the audience liked, as it invested them in something past the simple action of the match. With a rivalry, it was a real story, with a beginning, middle and end.
Ortiz captured the UFC light-heavyweight championship with a decision win over Wanderlei Silva in April 2000 and became a dominant champion, defending the belt what was then a record five times, including wins over Evan Tanner and Ken Shamrock.
Shamrock would become his most important adversary, and one of the key rivalries in MMA history. The two would square off three times, and though Ortiz won all of them, each drew huge audiences and helped solidify the UFC’s growth. He also had two memorable matches with Chuck Liddell, as well as a trilogy with Forrest Griffin. And despite struggling in the later years of his UFC run, his previous contributions helped build the foundation of the company’s ongoing success.
#8: Dan Henderson
When it comes to the list of all-time greats, Dan Henderson is certainly in the conversation for top 5. However, a huge chunk of his career, and possibly the most productive part, came in other promotions.
Still, Henderson is worthy of a slot on the UFC’s top 10. He debuted as a 28-year-old winning a UFC middleweight tournament title in 1998, but it would be nearly a decade later until the Octagon would see him again. By that time, he was the Pride 183- and 205-pound champion, which allowed the UFC to make super fights with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Anderson Silva. The first of them drew nearly 6 million viewers for the television broadcast.
In just 10 UFC matches, Henderson has managed to author two of the sport’s indelible moments. In July 2009, he scored what many consider to be the greatest or most famous knockout in MMA history, coming against rival Michael Bisping at UFC 100. Two years later, at UFC 139, he won what many observers believe to be the best fight in MMA history, a grueling five-round battle with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
#7: Matt Hughes
Shortly after Zuffa bought the UFC, Matt Hughes became a fixture in the organization, a midwest farmboy who used his wrestling skills and strength to lay waste to the welterweight division and rule over it for parts of a decade.
Hughes was among the most consistent and straightforward fighters of his day. He would take you down and either punch you out or choke you out. There was little opponents could do about it. From Nov. 2001 until Sept. 2006, he exemplified that dominance, winning 12 of 13 times in the Octagon. During his UFC days, he finished 13 of his 18 wins.
His victims would run the gamut of legends, from B.J. Penn to Georges St-Pierre to even the original master, Royce Gracie, in a bout that crossed eras.
Hughes’ 18 career UFC wins are tied for the most all-time with his longtime rival St-Pierre, while his nine wins in title fights are behind only St-Pierre and Anderson SIlva, who have 11 apiece.
#6: Jon Jones
It seems impossible to think that after just more than five years on the UFC roster, that Jon Jones belongs on the list of the 20 best of all-time. How can that be? But then you look at his resume and you wonder, how can he not be on the list?
In just five years time, Jones has built a stunning record of success, one that if he is fortunate enough to continue for a few more years, will be unmatched not just in the UFC, but through MMA, period.
Just 26 years old, here are some of the things he’s accomplished: youngest UFC champion ever (age 23), most consecutive light-heavyweight title defenses (six), 10-fight win streak. Regardless of what comes in the future, he will always be remembered for his stunning stretch from March 2011 to September 2012, when he became the first man ever to defeat five straight former UFC champions: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort. Just as impressively, he finished four of the five.
Away from the cage, Jones was one of the first UFC fighters to draw in blue-chip sponsors, drawing both Nike and Gatorade into his stable.
#5: Randy Couture
For some fighters, records do not tell the whole story. In consistently facing the best, sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, and nearly all of the time, it was memorable. That was the case for Randy Couture, who authored many indelible moments during his 14 years with the promotion.
First, the facts: Couture was the first man to win belts in two weight classes, and made a habit of it. He won the light-heavyweight championship two times, and the heavyweight belt three. The last of those title reigns is among the most storied bouts in UFC history. After a year in retirement, Couture, who had been struggling as a 205-pounder, came back, and as a heavyweight. Despite being a major underdog to Tim Sylvia, he floored the huge champ with his first punch of the fight and destroyed him for five rounds en route to the shocking win. In doing so, Couture, then 43 years old, became the oldest champion in UFC history.
Couture also had longstanding rivalries with Vitor Belfort and Chuck Liddell, and the latter one was instrumental in bringing attention to the sport as the UFC began its rise. Finally, he also played a major role as a front man for the sport as an eloquent advocate for its growth.
#4: BJ Penn
The career of BJ Penn may always be one of the most divisive topics of debate in MMA. Was he an overambitious dreamer who fought and won too often out of his natural weight class, or an underachiever who let some of his best years slip away by chasing improbable targets? The truth is somewhere in the middle.
No one should ever doubt the man’s talent. Notable names including Anderson Silva have said Penn is the greatest fighter ever, this despite Penn’s career 16-9-2 record. That’s because almost no one ever entered the Octagon with more natural skill and ability at every discipline.
At his best, Penn featured sharp boxing with both speed and power, strong wrestling, and dominant jiu-jitsu. He was one of the first that could boast of such a well-rounded set of skills.
As a result, Penn became only the second multi-divisional champion in UFC history, winning the welterweight championship in Jan. 2004 by choking out Matt Hughes, and capturing the lightweight belt in Jan. 2008 by choking out Joe Stevenson.
In his UFC days, Penn has had notable rivalries with Hughes, Georges St-Pierre and Frankie Edgar, and has been one of the UFC’s sole bankable lighter weight stars, once drawing nearly a million pay-per-view buys for his rematch with St-Pierre.
#3: Chuck Liddell
When the UFC was riding its mid-2000s boom, the man at the forefront was a knockout artist with lead in his hands who went by the stone cold moniker of “The Iceman.”
Chuck Liddell seemed to come out of central casting, mohawked and with a tattoo running along the left side of his head. Yet he was quiet, almost modest until he would step into the cage and suddenly become larger than life.
Liddell was one of several major UFC figures that spanned two generations, and from 1999 to 2002, boasted a seven-fight win streak that included wins over Vitor Belfort, Murilo Bustamante and Kevin Randleman.
As a participant in a legendary trilogy with Randy Couture as well as a blazing rivalry with Tito Ortiz, Liddell played a major role in delivering mainstream interest to the organization during the early days of Zuffa ownership. As a coach on season one of The Ultimate Fighter, his star was truly born, and from then on, he was a box-office phenomenon. It didn’t hurt that he was a must-see attraction, capable it seemed of vaporizing opponents with a single strike. From April 2004 to December 2006, he was unbeatable, knocking out seven straight opponents, still a UFC record.
#2: Georges St-Pierre
Georges St-Pierre is possibly the most well-rounded, best representation of a modern mixed martial artist, a dynamic athlete who excels at every aspect and focuses on the small details that lead to greatness.
During his career, St-Pierre has won fights by all varieties of outcome, from devastating knockout (GSP vs. Matt Hughes II) to submission (Frank Trigg) to control and command (Nick Diaz).
One of St-Pierre’s underrated qualities has been his ability to graciously accept the media spotlight. In doing so, particularly through the mid-2000s as the sport first began to gain wide acceptance, he helped humanize the fighters that many once thought of as thugs.
But his real value was in the cage, where he currently holds an 11-fight Octagon win streak, tied for second all-time to Anderson Silva. St-Pierre also mowed down a murderer’s row of competition, including rivals Hughes and B.J. Penn along with Jon Fitch, Carlos Condit, Josh Koscheck and Nick Diaz.
#1: Anderson Silva
Most consecutive wins, most title defenses, most knockdowns, most finishes. Those are but a few records written in the UFC history books by Anderson Silva, the easy choice for the best fighter in the promotion’s 20-year history.
Throughout his seven-year run that began with a stunning 49-second starching of the iron-chinned Chris Leben, Silva has dazzled us with his technique, power and brazenness. During actual competition, he’s danced, bobbed and weaved, taunted opponents, and almost inevitably, it ends with a knockout.
Silva’s resume is stunning, with finish victories over Rich Franklin, Dan Henderson, Forrest Griffin and Vitor Belfort. Of course, his legacy fight will always be his August 2010 match with Chael Sonnen.
On that night in Oakland, Silva, fighting with a broken rib, struggled to stop Sonnen’s relentless takedowns and ground control. Through four rounds, he was being routed. Sonnen had outstruck him 278-54 and had notched multiple 10-8 rounds. The cause seemed hopeless, until suddenly, Silva caught Sonnen in a triangle armbar, authoring one of the most dramatic comeback wins ever.
That’s only a piece of his legend, to go with his walkaway knockout of Griffin, his thumpings of Franklin, and his ability to go up in weight and still dominate. At the age of 38, Silva finally lost his championship to Chris Weidman, but will have a chance to regain it this December. Even if he fails to do so, his overall record of success in the UFC remains unmatched.